How to Declutter When You’re Sentimental

I’m going to share with you how I declutter my home even though I’m sentimental and two stories that changed my life!

Woman looking at baby clothes in living room.

I am a sentimental person. There, I said it. And it can be really hard to declutter when you’re sentimental. My only saving grace is that I’m also a very organized person. I like everything to have its own spot and I’ve never had a junk drawer. Ever.

What happens when you’re sentimental and organized is that you start to get neat piles of junk. That’s what my basement was like although neat went out the door every few months or so. It would be all neat and organized then a few months would pass and I’d have to reorganize it all again. But reorganizing clutter is just that, organized clutter.

To truly get to the bottom of the clutter you need to tackle the sentimental reasons behind it. Why you have it and why it’s so hard for you to let go of.

Today I’m going to share with you how I tackle all these sentimental items in our homes and how you can too!

Jewelry and jewelry box on bed.

Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links. Please read my disclosure policy.

Excuses we tell ourselves

I like to keep the kids’ artwork, baby clothes, birthday cards and all their schoolwork. But I realize that I’d be on the show ‘Hoarders’ if I didn’t keep it under control!

Also, I think being a blogger has given me an excuse to hoard lots of home decor for prop styling but do I need a whole basement of it? Umm no.

Also, we were planning on moving to a bigger house so we kept a LOT of furniture along with a storage unit full to the top but the cost to keep it was ridiculous. After a couple of years, we could have purchased all those items again for the same cost. The other thing is that styles change and tastes change. What you think you might want to keep for ‘one day’, you probably won’t want when that ‘one day’ comes and in the meantime, you’ve spent a lot of money storing stuff for no reason.

That’s the biggest reason for getting rid of our storage unit a year ago and it was the best decision ever made. It was a huge weighted lifted.

Maybe you have items that you’d like to pass down to your children so you hang on to things for that very reason. Or maybe it’s for another family member/grandchild etc.

If you are holding on to something for someone else, then just give it to them now! If they come to you and say I really want your china collection when you’re gone, then why not pass it on to them now? Then you can see them using it and find joy in it!

Woman looking at baby book sitting on floor.

Two stories that changed my mind

Story 1

When my grandparents downsized from their farm to an apartment, my grandma set up what looked like a garage sale (minus the money exchange) on their big driveway for just family and later friends and everyone got to pick and choose what they wanted. It was like Christmas! She was so happy to see all her items going to people she loved. If they didn’t want it, she donated it. But everyone seemed to pick something they loved and it was a great way to give things away without feeling the pressure to take it.

Story 2

I remember there was a distant relative in our family that passed away around the same time my grandma held her ‘garage sale’. This other family member was a hoarder. Her home was so full of stuff it was such a burden on her family members. It took tons of man power and energy to go through everything in the house, the garage and the sheds.

There was so much stuff that had rotted over the years that most of the stuff was unsalvageable. Everything was crammed in so tightly that you couldn’t notice how rats had crawled in and made homes out of the family ‘heirlooms’ and water damage had ruined what the rats didn’t touch. Dumpsters had to be dropped off onto the driveway and it took WEEKS for everything to be gone through and after that everyone was exhausted.

Not only is it an emotional time for loved ones but having to deal with all their crap is not what you want to leave your family. I’m determined to not do that to my children!

The moral of these stories

In both of these stories, what family members actually took away were small items. Mementos that were important to them so they could remember their loved ones. Not big collections, not any furniture, just a few small pieces.

I always remind myself of these stories when I’m holding on to too much stuff!

how to Deal with Sentimental Items

So where do you begin when you have a basement (like mine was) bringing to the top of stuff that you don’t know what to do with and a lot of it is sentimental?

Do multiple rounds of decluttering

This has helped me tremendously. As I mentioned in my basement organization post, I really found it helpful to take a good hard look at what you have first. Leave some boxes open or take the lids off some storage bins and take mental pictures of what’s in there. When you’re going about your daily business, remind yourself of what is in those bins and ask yourself why you are still hanging on to them.

Most sentimental items have zero monetary value. They are valuable to us because each of those items carries a memory. We worry that if we throw out the item, we’ll lose the memory.

Because my blog shares photos of my home and I have my book full of book projects, I’m happy to let those items go. I’ve documented the items, it gave me joy now it’s time for you to go.

First round:

Go through everything in a section (like the basement) and quickly sort through the easy stuff and set aside the sentimental items. Anything that is not useful to you/doesn’t fit/broken/throw away, recycle or donate.

I have a spot in my basement where I keep items to go to donation. I drop off stuff every 1-2 weeks. If feels so good!

I take a photo of things I no longer need but still love before letting them go.

Photo of toys from the 80s.

Second round:

If you reallllllly love and it sparks joy (KonMari style), keep it but promise yourself you will re-evaluate it in another 3-6 months . I find that when I get purging and can’t decide if I want to hold on to something, I’ll keep it and then put it in the back of my mind. Later on I realize I can just let that item go. It’s helped tremendously get over lots of sentimental items!

Third round:

Tackle your sentimental items once the majority of your home (or an area) is organized. It will make you feel so good and proud of yourself to know that you can declutter and make a huge dent in tackling it head on! Also, once you start tackling those sentimental items, it won’t be placed around all the other cluttered items. You’ll be going through it all in a semi-organized home/space.

now you’re ready!

Now that you have your sentimental items ready to go through, be prepared to find joy in all these items but you can’t find joy in EVERYTHING and keep EVERYTHING. It’s going to be hard!

Pick out your best/favorite/most amazing items. It’s going to be the sentimental olympics for you! For example, if you have tons of stuffies, keep one or two favorite ones and donate the rest.

Start with one category at a time. Divide up all the sentimental items into different categories and box them up temporarily. Now you’ll pick a category at a time to go through.

For kids’ stuff, I gave myself a limit of ONE bin of baby clothes/shoes/first blankets/favorite books for both kids. It will depend on your space and how sentimental you are for how to make a decision on your goal.

And remember, your kids won’t want a ton of their own stuff later on so just keep a small amount! And if they do want all their stuff, then you have to make sure they don’t become hoarders so you want to be an example for them.

Storage bin with kids' keepsakes label on it.

Go through all the items and pick only the most memorable or favorite and make sure you stick to the goal. In this case, I wanted only one bin.

Baby clothes on floor ready to go in storage bin.

If you only have one item for your each of your children or none, well done! If you’re sentimental like me, this could be challenging!

I’ve kept these bags from different things throughout the years. Some have been from school supplies and sheet sets. You can buy similar zipped storage bags here.

Zipped storage bags:

Packed up clothes in storage bin.

For my kids’ artwork, school report cards, baby book, and any paper mementos, I have one smaller bin for each of them.

You can see how I organize my kids’ artwork here along with my free School Memories Book printables.

School memory items in a storage bin.

I also have one bin for my keepsakes and Aaron has four keepsake bins as we saw in the basement makeover post but since I have so much home decor, I call it even 😉

I continually go through a category at a time until that category is complete.

Organized basement with storage bins on black shelving units.

remember this tip

Now you have a SYSTEM for what to do when you get more items in that category. In some cases, you won’t have any more items of a category coming in to your house. Be sure to stick to your goals and don’t allow yourself to add more to it. This is how it slowly goes downhill fast. You’ll begin to think what’s one more thing?

This is what happens when you think what’s one more thing:

Before photo of a messy basement.

Right now the only thing left in my home to organize is family photos. I’m trying to decide if I make more digital photo books or do something else. I’ll make sure I share whatever I end up doing.

I realized after some time that hanging on to so much stuff was unnecessary. It’s kind of like when one door closes another opens. And that doesn’t mean that you’ll get those items back or replace them but what you do get back is peace of mind and freedom. All of a sudden I feel like I have more creativity, I have less stress and a huge burden has been lifted. Which, if you logically think about, seems odd because these are just items sitting in a box but it really does help you in your everyday life. You don’t feel like there’s a weight attached to you anymore.

Few clothes folded on top of bed.

You’ll also feel very PROUD of whittling down clutter from your house.

I hope this has helped you declutter your home when you are sentimental. Let me know in the comments below what your biggest sentimental items are to let go of.

Make sure to pin it for later!

How to Declutter When You're Sentimental.

click in case you missed:

How to Declutter and Organize Your Basement

How to Sell Everything in a Storage Unit

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  1. Thank you for sharing. I’m afraid I hold onto most things for sentimental reasons. I am in the middle of downsizing again to a much smaller unit and I’m getting pretty desperate. I’m trying everyday. Your article was just what I needed. I started yesterday with a big box of cards – Christmas, birthday etc. I’ve decided I will keep a few eg my 21st birthday cards and all the rest I am taking photos and will file them electronically.

    1. Thanks Sophia. Glad this was timely for you! I have a hard time with cards too. I have one shoe box (it looks prettier than a shoe box) for each member in the family and once it gets full I go through them. That way I’m only left with one box of cards for each person. I decided last year to recycle my Christmas cards as I was saving on to too many. You could also keep say 2019’s Christmas cards, put them in with your Christmas decor then look at them at Christmas 2020 and recycle them then. That way you can look at them one more time before recycling them.
      It sounds like you’re doing a great day. Tackling it a little bit each day is the right speed to do this at.
      Hugs, Jamie

  2. I’ve never understood the storage unit business. As you said, it’s costing money to hold onto things that you may never use. If it doesn’t fit into my lifestyle or aesthetic, nor the square footage of my home, then I give to a family member or donate/sell. As for cards – garbage. I can’t think of anything I’ve held onto for sentimental reasons. The memories are in my head & heart. My kids brownie/cubs/swimming/hockey/art/ etc went into large envelopes which I held onto until they had their own place.
    I find when decluttering that the three box rule works – one for Keep, one for Donate and one for Garbage. I then leave put the Keep box by the Donate box for seven days. Every day I revisit them. Many things migrate from Keep to Donate, leaving only one small box to store. I feel so much better once every thing has a place, and everything is in it’s place. I also use the the reverse hangar to see what I haven’t worn in a season, then donate those items. Good Luck!

    1. We don’t have a storage unit now but we did just before my now husband moved in with me as he had a whole house of stuff too. It’s useful for lots of in-between life stages. This post is for sentimental people that have a hard time letting go, not a regular decluttering post 😉

      1. I’m sorry if I’ve offended anyone. I’m aware some people are more sentimental, not that I’m not, but I feel it in my heart, not so much with stuff. Feel free to delete my comment.

        1. I don’t know if this helps, but I didn’t see anything offensive. Your statement reminded me of Marie Kondo. I’m a sentimental person, too. People like to hand down their stuff to me because they know I will keep it and take care of it. But I end up holding on to too many things because it belonged to someone else. I think someone in my life past or present will be mad at me if I give it away or toss it. KonMari’s books gave me new insights, including some tough-love advice to loosen the mental grip I placed on what I thought were important papers, cherished objects, etc.. I am slowly but surely letting go and keeping what I actually enjoy, not what I think I should keep under obligation to someone else.

  3. Hi Jamie,
    The sentimental items are the hardest to let go. Emotional ties and guilt that you might forget something that once belonged to someone you dearly love or was a gift from a special person can make this challenging. Keep what you actually use and love from that person who is so important to you. Reconsider items that you feel might not feel quite so important or special to you. Revisit in 2 weeks and see if you feel different and might consider letting go. What you let go/donate can bring joy to another person instead of being stored in a box and tucked away. What benefit does it have being tucked away and stored? If it helps, take a picture of items before you donate. Consider giving items to another family member. It doesn’t mean you love that special person any less. Having organization in your home can have a positive effect. Consider the concept.

  4. Jamie! You and I just talked about this. My mom left me her blue china. Its the pretty Mason Blue Bells China and I love it but i am saving it for my grandaughter who is 6 now and her mom, my daughter, doesn’t have a sentimental bone in her body. So i have a hope chest that my mom had also given to me when she passed away and i’m saving this for Isla. Other things are just nothings i have collected over the years. Nic Nacs that i don’t need. I am slowly letting them go. thank you for the post.

  5. Great post! Just what I needed because I have been tackling this same problem myself for years. I make it my New Year’s resolution to keep getting rid of stuff. My family thinks of me first when getting rid of things that belonged to people who have passed — which makes me happy sometimes, don’t get me wrong. Some items work well in our home. But our house is something like 1095 sq ft.
    Example: When my grandma was to move to assisted living, she asked if I wanted her piano and paid to have it sent to me. The 1952 Janssen piano was her favorite. I played the piano when I was younger, but I didn’t keep up with it. The piano was out of tune as well. She died in 2009. I think it took me 5 years to part with it because I loved her so much and felt like it was disloyal to part with it. I asked if anyone wanted it for the cost pianos require to have it moved. I paid to have the piano taken to St. Vincent de Paul Society in the end, but I wrote a verse and her name in pencil somewhere only I knew. It will be a surprise if anyone finds it. And I took pictures of the piano from various angles to make a scrapbook page. Best thing I ever did. I figure grandma is playing a much better piano in Heaven and doesn’t miss it.

    I have a solution to the photo problem. I used the Project Life materials to make a 50th anniversary book for my parents. While I was doing that, I signed up to their newsletter. I saw that they have digital scrapbooks that you can assemble through an app. There’s a cost, of course, but check it out. It sounds like it’s much faster and less labor intensive than what I did over the course of 2 years for my parents.

  6. THANK YOU! I needed this article! Not only for the tips but to know I’m not the only one going thru the sentimental struggle!! One thing I found helpful is that my local animal shelter is always in need of comforters and stuffed toys so I am happy to donate my plush Papa Smurf to a pup in need of a play toy!!

  7. Recently I was out for a walk and someone had the most adorable collection of stuffed-toy owls in their window, and I thought “dang, I wish I’d collected something cool like that when i was a kid.”
    I mean, Barbie dolls were cool when I was young, but I’ve outgrown them and yet they are still hard to declutter. I’ve given away some to kids who’d actually use them, but I still have about half of them left (half=30 or so). Five seems like it would be a good number that says “I’m an adult but on this shelf there are some things to remind me of my childhood.” Keeping 30 says “I’m stuck in my life and can’t move on.”
    And journals are the most sticky sentimental items I have. They spark a lot of things, and some of it is joy. But mostly they spark stuck-ness.

    1. haha that’s so true, Layla. There’s a point where it becomes too much. I find the paper stuff most challenging as well!
      Hugs, Jamie

  8. The thing here is I have no storage space.. I live in an older, smaller house. I can’t give things to my daughter because she also has limited space, and when you buy a tote or something to put things in, you have to find room for that. Not an option here..what to do?

  9. I have decluttered a lot of my sentimental items, but I still find the hardest part now (for me) of getting rid of sentimental items, is because the item “transports” me back in time the way a picture of that item never could. There’s something so special about “wow this is a birthday card made from paper in 2003!!” or knowing I wrote something in that year (whatever year it was) and the ink is still there in my present day is wild to me! Like I said- feels like a time portal! But I also love to be organized and hate having a bunch of stuff (lol- dilemma), so I’ve parted ways with a lot and the rest I’m still working on navigating. (Hence why I read this post lol)
    I would say the most compelling inner argument I have that allows me to release those “time portal” memories is knowing that, while yes when I see it it’s a fun trip, but how often do I really see it? And I’m getting to the point now (I’m 29) where I’m realizing that when you have too much stuff (even digital photos!) you won’t see hardly anything, so it’s completely counter-productive to why you’re holding onto it!

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